Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Description of the World - Part 37

Steven Runciman, The Sicilian Vespers (The massacre of the supporters of Charles of Anjou, the French King of Sicily, wasn’t really the beginning of the mafia, though that was the tale I heard as a kid. The Angevin adventure in the Mediterranean whose collapse began with the events of March 30, 1282 was the first of the long series of French interventions in Italy. Runciman ends the book with an anecdote about another Frenchmen who dreamed about an Italian empire; “…King Henry IV of France boasted to the Spanish ambassador the harm that he could do to the Spanish lands in Italy were the King of Spain to try his patience too far. “I will breakfast in Milan,’ he said, ‘and I will dine in Rome.’ “Then,’ replied the ambassador, ‘Your Majesty will doubtless be in Sicily in time for Vespers.’’)

H.S.Bennett, English Books and Readers, 3 volumes (This series covers the period from 1475 when Caxton began English printing (albeit in Bruges) until the English Civil War, which was a Saturnalia of printing. The bulk of printing was religious—bibles, psalters, catachisms, sermons, tracts—a very important fact since it’s easy to focus on genres that were, commercially speaking, marginal. More people became religious, at least religious in an orthodox way, because of the printing press than ever became unreligious, ruined by a book. Printing increased the bandwidth of cultural memory and made science possible in its modern sense; but whether it increased or decreased enlightenment on the whole, or to put it in a quasi-Hegelian way, whether it increased the ratio of objective reason to objective delirium, is unclear. In England, the Act of 1543 forbade the reading of the Bible in English to “women, artificers, apprentices, journeymen, serving-men of the rank of yeomen and under, husbandmen and labourers;” but the demands of the subject matter and the effective and thorough control of discourse maintained by credentialism and peer review means that a much larger proportion of the population are fenced away from actual science that any 16th Century parliament denied access to scripture. That there has been an increase in what most people know since Gutenberg is surely true, but a lot of what we think of as progress is better understood as separating out.)
Arnaldo Momigliano, Essays on Ancient and Modern Judaism (I count myself fortunate that circumstances have allowed me to reads books like this instead of suffering through the tediousness of novels. The benefit of reading such books is not that the conclusions they contain are correct—being right is a always a matter of luck, after all—but the example of a higher standard of thoughtfulness that they represent.)

Lucien Febvre, The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: the Religion of Rabelais (I actually first read this famous book in French or rather, since the experience was much like reading in a dream, I went through a process that resembled reading. Reading the translation and discovering that I had mostly guessed right was a relief. Febvre writes: “Let us conjure up Francois Rabelais’ contemporaries—their violence and capriciousness, their inability to resist surface impressions, their extraordinary changes of mood, their astonishing quickness to anger, to take offense, to draw the sword and then kiss and make up.” I wrote in the margin “The 15the Century on a bun,” characteristically getting the century wrong. Whether or not these personality traits capture something of the central tendency of the age, they certainly appeal to Febvre, who wrote an astonishingly enthusiastic biography of Martin Luther, which, if I recall it correctly, celebrated his joie de vivre at greater length than his theology. Nietzsche prided himself on having written philological essays that were plotted like romances. The Problem of Unbelief isn’t quite a romance, but it has an equally artful structure. Febvre builds to a very sweeping conclusion about a century that wanted to believe, but begins with a demonstration of scholarly virtuosity—or pedantry—about a very fine point. Some of Plato’s dialogs are like that. Socrates spars with some sophist or other and demonstrates his ability to play their game before he gets down to philosophy and winds up with myth. The end of Febvre’s book is not quite a vision of the form of the good, just the summary judgment that Rabelais could not in fact have been an atheist because the mentality of his age didn’t have a place for such a thought. By the way, what Febvre is claiming is not that the men of the 16th Century were starting from premises that ruled out atheism. He’s not talking about premises. In fact, he was critical of Calvin’s attempt to draw impious conclusions about Servetus “by expressly accusing him of having only one aim, “to destroy religion from top to bottom, totam religionem evertere because this result followed from his denial of the Trinity. I wrote at the end of the chapter: “Well, lotsa folks reason like Calvin to this day. Witness the Marxists. And intellectual historians and even philosophy grad students (experto crede!) tend to argue that if X said A, he must have meant B, too. One tends to think that human reasoning has a firm skeleton, albeit one obscured by the flesh of feelings. It’s a form of optimism.” Febvre claims that we not only assume that people before us argued from different axioms but that they argued as we argue. That’s an even more sweeping result than his official thesis about atheism in the 16th Century. “The critical examination of the poetic evidence…taught us that “man is not Man, but that men change—much more than we imagine, and at a much faster rate.” Obviously Febvre’s book didn’t settle the broader issue once and for all, and even his narrower conclusions about Rabelais have been endlessly contested; but you can’t claim he didn’t present his side of the case brilliantly. I guess I admire him in much the same way he admired Martin Luther.)

A.D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science and Technology in Christendom, two volumes (White is a representative of a prominent variety of 19th Century American right thinking. HIs version of what is now sometimes called scientism is not atheistical—liberal Protestants of his era were decidedly pro-science—and also demonstrated what Lewis Carroll made fun of as Anglo-Saxon attitudes. Imagine writing this sentence now: “That sturdy Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon honesty, which is the best legacy of the Middle Ages to christendom, asserted itself in the strongholds of theological thought, the universities.”  A serious reading of White would have to place him in his time, something that White never tried to do in assembling a dossier against the obscurantists. Even when I was a senior in high school and knew very little history, I recognized that there was something profoundly wrong about White’s methodology. He had simply pilled up every embarrassing quotation he could find as if all the villains on the wrong side of the Manichean struggle had the same outlook. I wondered why it was so hard to figure out when this or that was said. The book has an allergy to dates. I also noticed that his own sturdy Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon honesty didn’t prevent him from writing things he must have known were false. Heroes are not always heroes, and a man like White who had access to excellent libraries and the linguistic skill to read original documents couldn’t claim that he didn’t know that, for example, Galileo wasn’t above traducing his rivals, stealing other peoples ideas and inventions, and coming up with some pretty farfetched theories of his own (comets, tides, etc.). I find it very unlikely that White didn’’t know how misleading, actually obviously false, this sentence was: “Ten years after the martyrdom of Bruno the truth of Copernicus’s doctrine was established by the telescope of Galileo.”  The astronomers, and not only the astronomers who were also Jesuits or theologians, argued about Copernicus for many years after Galileo. You can’t actually see the truth of the Copernican system through a telescope. What you can see are the phases of Venus; but that observation, though it did make Ptolemy obsolete was also perfectly consistent with Tycho Brahe’s system and several others. Of course, simply by living in a later age, you possess the teacher’s edition of the book, the one with the right or at least most recent answers in the back. That makes it all too easy to assume that earlier investigators should have guessed correctly. Darwin said that the Origin of Species was one long argument. Well, the Warfare of Science and Theology is one long brief. Which is why you get more credit for being Darwin than you do for being Jonny Cochran.)

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